The leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance urged South African lawmakers to oust President Jacob Zuma at the start of a parliamentary debate on a motion of no-confidence in the scandal-plagued leader on Tuesday.
Zuma, who has held power since 2009, would have to relinquish office if he loses the vote expected once the debate ends.
“I plead with you let us put the people of South Africa first and vote to remove Jacob Zuma today,” Mmusi Maimane said.
Speaking on behalf of the ruling African National Congress party, deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude said the motion against Zuma amounted to a “power grab” by the opposition.
“The ANC rejects this motion with the contempt it deserves,” she said.
Protesters blocked roads with burning tyres and rocks in a show of opposition to President Zuma hours before the South African parliament was due to vote on a no-confidence motion which could force him to step down.
Newspaper headlines reflected the high stakes at play “JZ’s moment of truth” read The Star, while The Sowetan declared: “High Noon for Zuma”.
Zuma, who has held power since 2009, has struggled to fend off opposition accusations of corruption and mismanaging the economy.
If parliament votes in favour of the no-confidence motion, he and his entire cabinet would have to step down.
The parliamentary speaker on Monday had ruled that the vote would be a secret ballot, a decision the opposition hopes will embolden members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to vote against Zuma.
It was unclear, however, which way the vote would go.
The ANC has 249 seats in the 400-seat parliament and the opposition controls 151 seats, so it would take 50 ANC lawmakers backing the opposition to vote Zuma and his cabinet out.
Markets had welcomed Speaker Baleka Mbete’s decision, with the rand, bonds and banking shares surging after Mbete’s announcement, buoyed by the prospect of Zuma’s removal. On Tuesday, the rand traded flat as markets waited anxiously.
In the past year, Zuma has upset investors, in particular by removing finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March.
The country’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk by two of the top three credit rating agencies, unemployment is at a 14-year high of 27.7 per cent and the economy is back in recession.
Zuma has also faced a welter of corruption accusations, which he denies, and the ANC, which has governed since the end of apartheid in 1994, is deeply divided.
“Jacob Zuma has brought our nation to its knees,” the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, which brought the motion to parliament, said in a statement urging lawmakers to vote the president out.
Across Gauteng province, where the commercial hub Johannesburg and capital Pretoria are located, protesters blocked major roads with burning tyres and rocks.